The Reverend Kathleen Damewood Korb
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater
THE MEANING OF IT
It has become so much a part of the way we think about the world that it is only seldom that we may recognize the influence and power of the Existentialist philosophy which was at its height about thirty-five years ago, but which still informs much of our thought. You never really hear about it any more. The great Existentialist writers are dead, and their philosophy is hardly mentioned by name. Nevertheless it is pervasive in our thinking. It is summed up in the often-heard statement that we create our own meaning.
There is a tendency to want to believe that all religions are at their essential core the same. We point to the incidence of what in Christianity is called the Golden Rule, and because we find it in two or three others we cite this as proof. In reality, of course, there are profound differences, but the one thing that they do share is their reason for existence. They are about the establishment of human purpose in the world — the meaning of human life.
We tend not to realize that the individual’s quest for meaning is, at least in western thought, essentially a modern activity. It’s not that meaningfulness was ever unimportant, but it was something of a given. Our purpose and place in the world was something that we learned about in childhood, and though some might rebel, that in itself had sufficient inherent meaning to carry the individual through without the sometimes agonizing questions of why we exist. We could believe that we were created for a purpose, and we could either accept the purpose as it was given to us by parents, teachers and priests, we could attempt to figure it out for ourselves, or we could simply leave it in the hands of the creator. If we were created, it must be for some good and transcendent reason.
For the existentialists, partly as a response to the horrors of Nazism, partly to the findings of science, purpose and meaning were no longer a given. Since it seemed we were not created, but evolved like the other animals, and since it became clear that our behavior could sometimes be worse than that of the fiercest beasts, such questions became central. In theory, if those understandings are true, it ought not be necessary even to bother with whether or not life is meaningful. We could just do what highly evolved animals do, adjusting where we must to social needs and surviving as individuals and species as nature demands. There is as little problem with that answer as with the answers of special creation. You live by the chance of evolution, and you get what you can out of it before you die. The bumper sticker that I saw some years ago on a De Lorean summed it up: “The one who dies with the most toys wins.”
Most people, at least the ones I know, sense that there must be more to it than that. Can a creature that creates ornate mathematical structures, learns to fly without having wings, builds towers as high as hills and bridges with sweeping curves of beauty, writes symphonies and calculates the orbits of the planets be without purpose? Can the life of a creature who understands the concept of justice, who feels mercy and compassion, who writes hymns of glory to the highest we can imagine, be meaningless? What is the meaning of a star or of the life of a butterfly or a typhoid bacillus or a rose? Surely the existentialists must have been right. The only meaning available to us is that which we create.
There are even human lives, I think, which are without meaning. That man who boasted that he would win if he died with the most toys has found no inherent meaning. I did a funeral some time ago in New Orleans for a woman that was one of the most difficult I have ever done, not because of dealing with a heavy emotion of loss, but because no one really cared very much. When I asked about the woman’s life, it seemed that no one could think of much to say. She didn’t think much or read much or work much. She liked playing bridge and going to Mardi Gras balls and parades and criticizing her sisters and nieces and nephews and husband and flirting with and manipulating men, but other than that she didn’t seem to do much. She didn’t even give parties — just went to other people’s. It’s not that people disliked her, or had anything unpleasant to say about her except for her tendency toward unkind remarks, they just didn’t seem to feel that they would miss her very much at all. Her sister-in-law and nieces were doing what they should do, arranging her funeral, and that was that. The only thing that didn’t jibe for me, and that they could not explain, was that she had specifically asked for a Unitarian funeral. Given the rest of her qualities as described to me, the only thing I could imagine was that she had been to one once and liked it. She certainly had never, so far as anyone knew, been inside a
Most people, I believe, are not satisfied with that. They want to feel that their lives do mean more than toys or material pleasures only to end in death. The current interest in spirituality, unless it really is no less of a fad than hula-hoops or body piercing, is the effort to discover meaning. People look at their toys or their jobs or their relationships and think that there must be more to it than that. The quest for spirituality, however, as it is usually articulated and practiced, is based on the assumption that life does have meaning if we can only discover it, that there is a transcendent dimension inherent in us that we need to tap and then we will feel satisfied that life is more than getting and spending, living and dying. Viktor Frankl, however, said, “It is not what we ask of life, but what life asks of us that is important.” Even spirituality, as we look at it today, is another demand we are making of life. We are not creating meaning by responding to the demands of life but rather trying to discover a meaning that we assume is there, which however uplifted it makes us feel probably cannot ultimately save us.
If meaning truly is not inherent as the existentialists argue and as my examples seem to show, and if we need it to be and become more than wisps in the wind, then we must create it for ourselves. That is where the discussion usually ends. We must create our own meaning, we say, and everyone nods wisely, and we go off and do it, I suppose. Except that I’m not sure it’s that easy. What is it that we can create that makes life meaningful and how does it do it? If life is essentially meaningless and therefore absurd, can we just assign meaning to it? Can we say, “Collecting a full set of all the colors and brands of pantyhose in the world will give my life meaning?” Or can we say, as some are obviously saying, “Killing myself and all the innocents around me with a car bomb is a meaningful act if I manage to get attention and kill a villain or two?” Obviously there must be more to it than that. Although the creation of meaning is an act of individual will and differs in time and place and person, it can’t simply be arbitrarily decided. For meaning to be created by what we do with our lives, we must respond, as Frankl said, to the demands of life, not through our own decision as to what we want them to be, but the real demands that it is making. To determine what those demands are and to live by them is the life of faith. It can be said in the most terrifying of traditional terms. The purpose of our existence can be said to be what traditionalists have always said it was: faithful living.
When I talk about faith many people think that I am redefining the term. My feeling is that rather than redefining it, I am bringing it back to its most important meaning. Popularly it is used to mean belief without evidence. However, look at the word faithfulness. It has nothing to do with belief but everything to do with loyalty. When we speak of a religious faith, we often are not talking about adherence to the minutiae of doctrine, the acceptance of certain beliefs, but rather a loyalty to the ideals that it preaches. In fact, faith is not belief but loyalty and courage — loyalty to ultimate ideals and the courage to live by them whether or not they have objective being. I have used the image of a tunnel and the act of traveling toward the light at the end of it — a light that you can’t see. To be faithful you don’t have to believe that the light exists. You don’t even, if you have sufficient courage, have to hope that it exists. You go forward as if it exists, and that is faith. (The lights that encourage your travel along the way are grace, but that’s another sermon.)
If we create our own meaning, that would seem to imply that meaning can be arbitrary. Ultimate values differ from person to person, and it is what we value in life that makes demands upon us. Commitment to transcendent values is the same thing as responding to life’s demands or living faithfully. If Muslim terrorists have as their ultimate value the destruction of
This, I suppose, is the leap of faith that I take, though I could wish to find some objective reasons for my belief, that transcendent meaning is more than human creation, and that goodness can be discerned and can as easily be mistaken. Deciding what values we can commit ourselves to and therefore creating meaning for our lives cannot be simple individual preference. Human beings, of course, are past masters at justification, and we can probably find ways to justify any demand that we think we perceive as being one of the ultimate demands of life. We can describe it as justice, as honor, as any of the values that each of us holds however we may differ in our description of them. We can talk about the greatest good for the greatest number or about the greatness of the ends justifying the means, but I suspect that in its final analysis the creation of meaning must depend on our intuition, on sharing our quest with others, on considering our biases, our hopes, our beliefs, and finally, after having given the subject all the consideration we can manage end at last with no final answer. Kant said that there are moral truths that we know a priori. The transcendentalists believed that the intuition was finally the only route by which we could discover the holy. Surely reason without faith will never succeed. We can, then, decide that with no better ground than that the search for meaning may as well be abandoned, or choose the delights of faith kept honest by honest examination.